Privilege Blog

In Response

Ashley asked me some very good questions the other day.

“Are there really actually a group of people out there who associate themselves as “high wasp”? and truly do uphold the sort of standards you outline? is there a different between a family with money and a high wasp family? does your family really look down on you for wearing certain brands? (many brands i must add, that seem like good ones to me. like for ex, when you mentioned disdain over your banana republic).”

Let me get the easy answer out of the way. Because, well, because. My cousin didn’t disparage my dress because it was Banana Republic. My apologies for not making that clear. No issue with Banana Republic. And she doesn’t look down on me. Just my dress. She was pointing out in a High WASP way that I was wearing a day dress. Not appropriate for a dinner party. This is not something that most of the world would or should care about. A vestige of a society where “dressing for dinner” was a well-understood phenomenon.

Now on to the complex issues.

No. There is no group of people out there who call themselves High WASPs that I know of. I have only seen the term one other place, and that was when I (G)oogled it to check for copyright. However, the standards, the mores, and the aesthetics are real. It is not just about having money. The standards exist. I do, of course, always ask myself. “Do they matter?” Maybe. But I digress.

First, there is a High WASP code of conduct, which I wrote tongue-in-cheek, but with full intent and my father’s voice ringing in my ears. I didn’t make it up, I promise, despite never having heard it spoken out loud before.

  1. Look people in the eye when you shake hands.
  2. Stand up straight. High WASPs are obsessed with posture.
  3. Do what you said you would do. Including show up on time. Two minutes early is even better.
  4. Assume that others will behave as you behave. That others also know the rules. Play by the rules.
  5. Speak about others only as you are prepared to have them speak about you. Never ever try to make anyone feel bad.
  6. Vote and give to charitable causes.
  7. Use your good silver and linen tablecloths as often as you can.
  8. When you are beaten, or badly treated, forgive when possible rather than seek revenge. Revenge is childish.
  9. Bad taste, vulgarity, and ostentation, however, are most difficult to forgive. This will make #5 a very difficult tenet to adhere to.
  10. Send sincere, thoughtful condolences in the event of death.
  11. Always, always remember: A simple thank you will suffice.

east side bride added, 12. A firm handshake and my sister added, 13. Never complain.

Second, there is a history. The High WASP wave, the one that spawned my family, is washing up on shore as we speak. Perhaps with Ferragamos as driftwood and Van Cleef and Arpels as beach glass. This wave was built on the beginnings of America, and on capital created by the first Industrial Revolution. My family signed the Declaration of Independence and helped draft the Constitution. We made our money on railroads and valves. For some, the Rockefellers, the Whitneys, the Morgans, the ensuing fortunes were so substantial that their descendants are still wildly, um, rich. Still surfing far out on the big ones, if you will. Kowabunga, as Snoopy would have said. (Even now I am uncomfortable with words like rich. But it’s better than wealthy. I don’t know why. Words like Kowabunga are not a problem.)

For some, a new generation has created new money. For the rest of us, the fortunes have gone with the years, consumed gradually or dramatically lost. Leaving us with remembered wealth, an upbringing rich with privilege, a few ivory hand mirrors, and more than a few big words. I feel as though I am writing as an archeologist, sifting through artifacts, looking for insight, wondering if this culture I have known all my life, that has held a certain place in American society, still has relevance. And, if so, how?

Although I was very happy to discover that we know our expensive purses.

9 Responses

  1. I think it is still relevant. This must be where good manners and "knowing how to behave" came from, by watching what the Jones's did. A lot of us who are not High Wasp were brought up with so much of what you write about,with or without money. I WANT to pass on much of this to my kids; I think life loses something without it.
    Anyway, I love reading posts of yours like this!

  2. very interesting – and clarifying. :-) so my conclusion is high wasp is a mix of desiring and respecting good manners and paying great attention to detail (as for the importance of aesthetic and style), maybe? :-)

    oh and just this week on was on a blog somewhere (can't remember where) that had a picture linking to some book that was titled something like "High Wasp style of the 50's" – maybe that's what sparked me to ask for more info – started thinking there was some aspect of society that i'd be completely unaware of.

  3. LPC- I have been enjoying the posts on High Wasp style. I'll echo what Ashley said above: Good Manners, Attention to Detail, Quality over Quantity are timeless, universal values.

  4. My short answers to the questions would be:
    YES! (for better or worse, but a million times yes.)

  5. I agree with Maureen – even those of us who are not High WASPs can, and do, live by this code. It is simply good, sound common sense.

  6. I love the code of conduct which everyone should aspire to – WASP or not. Just watched "Grey Gardens" on DVD and it reminds me of your comments about a few treasures left from the fortune….

  7. Oh, now it makes sense. I didn't realize before that it was a dress-for-dinner dinner. Oh well, we all make our mistakes.

    The code of conduct is good advice for everyone. #13 is hard.

  8. I had to smile while reading your list at how many times I've heard those whispered in my ear, spoken firmly at the dinner table, or told to me through a simple look from my mother.

    I agree that it's a combination of behavior and of having that history. Interesting that you mention railroads. The land was purchased and the Cape House built through railroad money.

  9. In this great scheme of things you actually get an A with regard to hard work. Where exactly you actually lost us was in your specifics. As as the maxim goes, the devil is in the details… And it couldn’t be more correct at this point. Having said that, permit me reveal to you what exactly did do the job. Your text is actually very convincing which is possibly the reason why I am making the effort in order to opine. I do not really make it a regular habit of doing that. Second, while I can certainly see a leaps in reason you make, I am not convinced of exactly how you seem to unite your details which in turn produce the conclusion. For the moment I shall subscribe to your point however hope in the foreseeable future you link the facts much better.

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